Saturday, December 31, 2011

#Skeptic fail: #Dunning, #Shermer have blocked me at Skepticblog

Looks like I can post about a bit of New Year's Eve "skeptic" (as opposed to actual skeptics) fireworks and narrow-mindedness.

I have apparently been blacklisted from posting comments at SkepticBlog, one of the allegedly top blogs for alleged skeptics. Anyway, that's what WordPress tells me when I try to post comments there.

Apparently, my last comment on libertarian and selective skeptic Brian Dunning's latest blog post, trying to poo-poo the idea that biopiracy exists (sorry, no links if you're going to blacklist me), including a snarky aside about Dunning's upcoming court date on civil and criminal fraud allegations, was too much.

I will, speaking of that, give you this link though, to a previous blog post of mine about Dunning's legal woes and their connection to his libertarianism and selective skepticism. I'll also give you this link to a blog post of mine about how I apparently had a comment on another post of Dunning's deleted a couple of months ago.

That said, Dunning's not the sole proprietor of the blog. In fact, it's theoretically headed by his fellow libertarian and selective skeptic, Michael Shermer, editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine. So, any "block" decision ultimately falls

And, just as Gnu Atheists are a reason I don't primarily identify myself as an atheist, libertarian selective skeptics like Shermer, Dunning, magicians Penn/Teller and many others who deliberately conflate libertarianism and skepticism are another reason.

But, there's yet another reason.

More generally reasonable skeptics, like Daniel Loxton, have too narrow a definition of skepticism.

On this blog, I identify myself as a skeptical left-liberal (in U.S. terms, at least, I'm a left-liberal). That is, I apply skepticism to my own political stances and views. But, folks like Loxton don't want to apply skepticism to politics, or even too much to psychology or sociology, instead focusing on claims testable within the "harder" natural sciences only.

And, in addition to that, folks like Loxton are generally thinly informed on the history of Skepticism the philosophy. Were this not the case, and they had a deeper grounding in Philosophy 101, they wouldn't have such a narrow view of what "skepticism" is or should be.

That said, that's one blog to scratch off my reading list again. I went back there regularly about two years ago because friend Leo Lincourt said Shermer was posting less in the way of libertarian stuff there.

Well, he started again, and Dunning made up for that in spades.

And, I didn't think I'd have anything to blog about more than a trip to Austin (nothing big) or Iowa caucus thoughts

Friday, December 23, 2011

Moved ... and grateful

I am at a Starbucks in Austin. Took my laptop, equipped with wi-fi antenna (part of why I bought it years ago) when I drove into Cedar Park, suburban Austin, to turn in my rental truck, not knowing if I would get back to the Starbucks in Marble Falls before it closed tonight, not having checked hours before I left there.

That said, I'm grateful for a Starbucks there. I'm grateful that, on the phone connection, Verizon got out this afternoon, said it had fixed what was outside, and contacted my apartment complex to do what it needed to do inside. So, between high-speed at work, wi-fi at Starbucks, and good old dial-up at home, assuming it's fixed by early next week, I'll be fine on Internet.

I'm grateful for not only Whole Foods but the even better Central Market (a Texas-only chain) in Austin. I've stocked up on good coffee, great dehydrated split pea soup, black bean stew and curry lentil stew mixes, three types of curry powder, charsalt-type dry hickory smoke flavor, some sparkling waters, some high-ginger ginger ale and such. (And, the bulk food stuff I mentioned is actually relatively inexpensive.) Oh, and I had to get some non-inexpensive cheese, an indulgence of mine.

Halfway between Marble Falls and Cedar Park, northwest suburban Austin, is the Balcones National Wildlife Refuge. So, you can guess where I will do some hiking! The road winds a bit, in a good sense, following Texas' Colorado River through hills, with a mix of red oaks, white oaks, live oaks and cedars (could get rid of a few of those!).

I have tuned in Austin's 24-hour classical music station. I've already visited the Austin Symphony website. The Austin Classical Guitar Society, I knew about years ago.

I am grateful; grateful enough to start tearing up when I got in. I don't have to make a lot of money in life, if I can have amenities like this.

Marble Falls is not your typical small town, either. There's old Texas rancher money and at least reasonable-money retirees there. Not many towns of 7,000 have a Home Depot and a Lowe's. And two Thai restaurants, as I discovered today. So, even without going into Austin, I think life will be at least OK if not better there.

I'm grateful the job came open and other things, to make this possible.

Finally, I am grateful for the people on this list, some of whom go beyond acquaintances to friends, whether I've met you in person or not.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Splendid Saturnalia and best of the new year to everyone.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Kyoto carbon poetry

A comment from a friend on Google+, after he posted a haiku, led me to ask myself if I had a copy of this 1998 Kyoto treaty talks op-ed that I wrote all in haiku. And, I did. And yes, what follows was an actual op-ed column. (Small weekly paper, where I was publisher, and nobody to say 'You can't do that.')

Clinton seeks freer trade
With Chilean producers
Free wine, grapes, and fruit

Gephardt says "Never"
Dreaming Presidential dreams
Gore stands idly by

Newt and his minions
Will swap taxes for tariffs
Clinton: "See me next year"

He's to Kyoto
To cut back greenhouse gas growth
Subtle irony

Speaking, not doing
More global warming threatens
With his ev'ry word

Business USA
Claims the climate data is
Still insufficient

They preach doom and gloom
For our proud, strong economy
From mandated change

Clinton will stand and speak
To please Japan, Europe, home
And yet fall far short

Back in Washington
Ere his Orient Express
Reno had good news

Of campaign violations
Is terminated

Clinton breathes easy
As does loyal Gore besides
But is it over

On the back benches
Hot Republican firebreathers
Demand impeachment

The outside person
Knows all hands are money-green
Has cynic disgust

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Looking forward to Bob Carroll's new book

Carroll, the author of "Skeptic's Dictionary," both a basic go-to guide for skeptical thinking as a book AND a continually updated website of skeptical analysis and critique of claims in religion and theology, philosophy, alternative medicine, fallacious thinking and more, was kind enough to send me an electronic draft copy of his latest work, "Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism and Science Exposed."

I'm near the end of this book, which explains and documents how and why skeptical, critical thinking activities are "unnatural acts."

Here's a selection from the start of Chapter 8, "The Fallacy-Driven Life":
Fallacies are errors in reasoning. They drive the thought-engine of most people most of the time. We did not evolve to seek truth, beauty, and goodness. We evolved to survive and mate. Everything else is window dressing, including our so-called noble reason. Shakespeare may have mesmerized audiences with his lines:

What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty!
In form and moving how express and admirable!
In action how like an angel!
In apprehension how like a god!
The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!

In fact, man is an irrational animal, driven by his needs, fears, and wants, and following logic or reason only if it suits him. Our natural way of thinking, of making judgments, of identifying causal connections is to jump to conclusions on flimsy evidence. Critical thinking is unnatural. Following our feelings and emotions is more likely to motivate our behavior than well-reasoned arguments. We are as likely to be persuaded by irrelevant appeals as by relevant ones, and are more likely to produce slanted, selective, biased, one-sided, incomplete arguments than well-reasoned, fair-minded, accurate, complete arguments. We make assumptions that aren’t warranted, create straw man arguments out of fragments of opposing viewpoints, offer up false dilemmas, and draw conclusions hastily. It’s amazing we’ve made so much progress!
Carroll, from the point of a professional philosopher and skeptic, takes largely the same view of human nature as behavioral psychologists and economists such as Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky.

But, Carroll gets his terminology right. I can't mention the number of times I have pointed out that a global warming denier's claims should be pulled under the credibility microscope because he works for a place like the far-right think tank, the Heartland Institute. He notes, on that:

The ad hominem fallacy is often confused with the legitimate provision of evidence that a person is not to be trusted. Calling into question the reliability of a witness is relevant when the issue is whether to trust the witness. ... Good refutations of arguments try to undermine the accuracy, relevance, fairness, completeness, and sufficiency of reasons given to support a conclusion. ... The fallacy in the ad hominem argument is due to the irrelevant nature of the appeal made, not to its falsity.
Regardless of one's political stripe, whether, libertarian, conservative, liberal or left-liberal, Carroll exhorts us to be more critical in our thinking about political events, scientific claims, sociological and psychological pronouncements and more.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

One "None" doesn't speak for all "apatheists"

An apatheist is the semi-technical term for someone too apathetic to care about atheism or theism.

A common nontechnical phrase is "nones" in vernacular sociological discourse.

Not being a Gnu Atheist, I therefore looked forward to a New York Times column written by a None.

However, to put it bluntly, Eric Weiner is NOT a "None." Selections from the column clearly show that:
We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt. 
Really? Who's the "we" you claim to represent by such a blanket statement.
Nones don’t get hung up on whether a religion is “true” or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that “truth is what works.” 
Again, since Nones by definition have no religion, many of them don't even have that much focus on religion.
God is not an exclamation point, though. He is, at his best, a semicolon, connecting people, and generating what Aldous Huxley called “human grace.” 
So, you're actually a theist of sorts, of the Paul Tillich "ground of being" school of Protestant theology that still has antirational, anti-analytic-philosophy, anti-linguistic roots at places like Harvard Divinity School.

And, if those snippets aren't stupid and barf-inducing enough, the closing paragraph certainly is:
We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us. 
No, honest religious seekers don't need a capitalist mass marketer as the person to lead them down the road of "wherever." That said, I don't think Eric Weiner would know intellectual honesty if it bit him in the ass.

But, knowing what he's written and reported before, he exemplifies the Peter Principle in action at public radio's Nice Polite Republicans.

And, at times like this, the anger that Gnus have at people who claim to be intellectuals is understandable.

Critiquing the "top 50 atheists"

Via a Facebook friend, I saw this list of 50 top atheists, listed in part for influence and "seriousness." Comments of a critical nature (meant in the journalistic sense) are hereby offered about a few of them, based on their numeric ranking in the list. In some cases, my comment is a critique of the website more than the person

50. David Silverman. Until American Atheists' president officially disclaims its Muslim-bashing tendencies, he tars a lot of the Gnu Atheist movement. I'll pass on liking him.
46. P.Z. Myers. Isn't it a bit ego-deflating to only be No. 46, P.Z.?
43. Michael Newdow. He might have had a case on general principles, but he had a case for provoking revulsion on general principles by exploiting a child. Sue over an invocation at a city council meeting rather than the Pledge of Allegiance at your daughter's school, especially when you're a divorced parent who isn't primary custodian.
42. Greta Christina. Just.No. Were I Chris Hitchens, you'd get a boatload of snark of various sorts, including, were I Snitchens, some of it gender-based. But, I'm not Hitchens, for which I'm thankful.
41. Ophelia Benson. Hypocrite, for a reason which I'll show by quoting from her blurb on the website: "(B)est known for editing the atheist web site Butterflies and Wheels (the title refers to Alexander Pope’s counsel against rhetorical overkill, “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?”)." This Gnu has broken plenty a butterfly in the name of Gnu Atheism.
30. Ray Kurzweil. Wrong. Not him (though he IS wrong), but the website, which says: "(H)is ideas are the logical extension of premises most atheists share." Totally untrue statement. Most atheists don't share most of his ideas and there's no logical extension from them to him, either.
26. Jennifer Michael Hecht. She teaches WRITING at Columbia? Her book "Doubt" has a number of its vs it's errors and other grammatical problems. The atheist Peter Principle at play. I did learn about Eastern "doubt" from her book, but, it could have been better in other ways, too.
24. Jerry Coyne. Opposed on general Gnu grounds.
23. Robert Wright. A one-trick pony as an author; "The Evolution of God" would have been bad enough without him trying to shoehorn other ideas inside that of his non-zero-sum games theory.
22. Richard Carrier. Deserves kudos as being the probable leader in the latest "nonhistoricity of Jesus" studies. I await his new book.

20. Steve Pinker. Pop Ev Psycher. And, I think his influence as an atheist is overrated by this website's ranking.
15. David Sloane Wilson. Someday, more group selection ideas will get better reception. He's a creative thinker.
13. Sam Harris. Just.Shoot.Me. But, first, lock him in a room with a couple of Iranian ayatollahs or something.
10. Christopher Hitchens. I've said plenty about him, the good, the bad and the ugly, elsewhere.
8. Steven Weinberg. A salute for an existentialist atheist outlook on life.
5. Dan Dennett. Didn't you used to be insightful, before you started recycling all your own shit? Daniel Wegner and others have WAY surpassed you in theorizing about consciousness. And, evolution is NOT algorithmic.
2. Kai Nielsen. A grand old man of modern atheism.
1. Peter Singer. WTF? He may be the world's most influential animal rights activist; he is NOT the most influential or most important atheist. Not even close.

Interesting that this was posted on a website for evaluating college choices. I'd be skeptical of some of their recommendations there, going by this.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Are atheists more charitable? Maybe, maybe not

I was kind of sorry to see Skeptic's Dictionary author/editor Bob Carroll to post a link to a site that made that claim on less-than-rigorous evidence.
Atheists, non-believers, secular humanists, skeptics—the whole gamut of the godless have emerged in recent years as inarguably the most generous benefactors on the globe. 
Inarguable, eh? It would be one thing, and possibly bad enough, to say that was an arguable claim. But, to say it's inarguable is even worse. The site goes on.
The current most charitable individuals in the United States, based on “Estimated Lifetime Giving,” are:
1) Warren Buffett (atheist, donated $40.785 billion to “health, education, humanitarian causes”) 2) Bill & Melinda Gates (atheists, donated $27.602 billion to “global health and development, education”) 3) George Soros (atheist, donated $6.936 billion to “open and democratic societies”)
A century ago, one of the USA’s leading philanthropists was Andrew Carnegie, atheist.
Sorry, but, this sounds like cherry-picking. Picking out the top couple of individuals, and noting their religious belief, is different than general research polling. Gates and Buffett are the two richest people in America, as well as being atheists. (If they are. Many "famous atheist" websites either don't have them or list them as agnostic.) Beyond that, and also per the post, there are relatively few "secular" aid charities, so a place like Kiva will likely attract a higher concentration of secularists. It's no big deal for secularists to outraise Christians there. Similar might be true at a place like The Heifer Project.

Arthur Brooks, at Hoover, claims the religious are more charitable even to non-religious charities. However, Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy shoots down his methodology.

Some people like Brooks claim that the religious invest more time in charities, too. Well, religious, or non-religious but moral-based charities (like pro-life groups) expect that. Certainly, explicitly religious groups do.

This all said, the little I can find on this question to "settle" it one way or the other.

Of course, that gets back to the link Bob Carroll posted. Since there is little evidence one way or the other, it's an unsupported claim.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The chimera: More refutation of the existence of a soul

Humans, though less often and less mixedly than marmosets, have "chimeric" offspring. A bit of a twin's body material, from embryonic stage, may be in your body. That's especially true since uterine research show that many human "singleton" births, probably around one-quarter, started as twin conceptions, and one embryo was partially absorbed by the other.

So, if, as many conservative Christians claim, a soul begins at conception, what happens to it at the time of a chimeric absorption? While I'm not a Gnu Atheist or a village idiot atheist, issues like this must be raised, not just of fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians, but of all Christians, all Jews, all Muslims, and all metaphysical dualists in general.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Atheism: What I lost

A while back, on Facebook, or some blog, or something, there was a discussion thread, for those of us who weren't "born atheist," about what we lost.

Well, news from my sister underscored that today. My brother-in-law is going to a new congregation, as interim pastor with likely move to permanent. She said his total compensation package will be around $100K. I assume that includes salary, denominational pension, health care, parsonage or housing allowance, car allowance and probably a few other things. With allowances for all of that, it's still got to be a base salary of more than $50K in a "flyover" part of Texas, a large town/small city place. (And, this is a mainline Protestant denomination, not a stand-alone church.)

As a divinity school grad myself who just couldn't do it, that's what I lost, compared to my lower-paying, lower-perking by far newspaper reporter/editor's salary.

Envious? Yes, a bit. But more angry at other things.

I'm angry at the dad who pushed all of his kids to some degree toward church-work careers. I'm angry at the mom who said that's why she was divorcing him, but didn't fight for primary physical custody of me. I'm angry at the career interest neglect by both parents, Ward/June Cleaver stereotypes aside. I'm angry at parts ignorant of, or ignoring of, sexual abuse under their roof. I'm angry at the emotional and physical abuse of a dad and the emotional neglect and sexual manipulation of a mom. I'm angry at how "passive" this all left me as an adolescent and young adult.

That's why, as I've blogged before, I reject "no regrets about life" claims as bordering on pop psychology.  But, I made my decision, as I blogged about in a series of posts, starting here. (To me, regrets are like old scars. I try not to pick at them, but I know that if they're deep enough, while they fade, they will never disappear. And, they have value for reminding me of the physical wounds that caused them, perhaps, just as it is with regrets.)

That said, there are many hypocrites in pulpits, whether atheist or otherwise. Even if they're not making $100K a year as a total package, they're still making decent money. Even if they're from a Baptist sort of hire-and-hire denomination or tradition, they still have pretty good job security. If, for whatever reasons, whether philosophical/metaphysical, more narrowly doctrinal or other reasons, if they're clinging to a job for job's sake when it's supposed to be more than a job, they're hypocrites.

They not only lose some self-respect, as they hang on to their jobs for money, they lose some of their self-image. If you're a hypocritical minister in a more conservative denomination, how do you counsel someone coming out of the closet? What do you say when someone asks you about gay issues? It was that, not just my changing belief/philosophy system, that led me to reject a guaranteed job (the Lutheran structure is similar to Catholics, not Baptists, in terms of job security) and more.

That said, philosophical/metaphysical issues can be hypocrisy producers. What do you say to the would-be mother who miscarried a three-month-old fetus if you don't believe in traditional ideas of "souls"? Ditto, as to what do you say to the son or daughter of a late-stage Alzheimer's parent? How do you tackle assisted suicide in general?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Religious obituary lines to shake your head over

Working at a newspaper, I finally decided the only way this secularist could deal with it was to do a running blog post on the most ... to do a word mash-up ... insipidly tragic ones.

From an obit for a 1-year-old: "Returned to Jesus' arms." Why did Jesus let him escape for a year in the first place?

Similar, for an elderly person: "Lifted into the Lord's hands." Who lifted her out?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Free will - a "god of the gaps" parallel?

Is "free will," at least as "compatibilists" generally strive to define (and save) it, a philosophical equivalent of "a god of the gaps"? I say the answer is an arguable yes.

Philosophy professor Eddy Nahmias is the latest to try to defend some neo-traditionalist, if you will, version of free will.

Of course, when you start with a straw man howler like this, it's easy for you to get called "a free willer of the gaps":
When (neuroscientist Patrick) Haggard concludes that we do not have free will “in the sense we think,” he reveals how this conclusion depends on a particular definition of free will.  Scientists’ arguments that free will is an illusion typically begin by assuming that free will, by definition, requires an immaterial soul or non-physical mind, and they take neuroscience to provide evidence that our minds are physical. 
First, not all neuroscientists make that assumption. And, philosophers like the Daniel Wegner whom you linked at the start of the column definitely don't link free will, or its absence, to dualism, or its lack.

Then, there's this:
Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires.  We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure.  We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.These capacities for conscious deliberation, rational thinking and self-control are not magical abilities.
Well, if you're not going to wrestle with what consciousness is, let alone what standing free will at the level of consciousness has in the absence of a Cartesian theater, you may have a problem. Nahmias does eventually get around to tacking Benjamin Libet and the famous 200-millisecond gap, but only to wave it away:
First of all, it does not show that a decision has been made before people are aware of having made it.  It simply finds discernible patterns of neural activity that precede decisions.  If we assume that conscious decisions have neural correlates, then we should expect to find early signs of those correlates “ramping up” to the moment of consciousness. 
Ahh, this is a petard hoister. It's all in how you define "decisions" as well as "free will," isn't it? Under the Dan Dennett multiple drafts model, this is rather the subconscious impulse that "wins out" to the level of consciousness.

Finally, to riff on Samuel Johnson, Nahmias enters into the last refuge of a free-will philosophy scoundrel: He makes the "fatal" is-ought error.
We need conscious deliberation to make a difference when it matters — when we have important decisions and plans to make.
Need? As in "ought to have"? Ooops.

Some other thoughts from Wikipedia on free will, including reference to Haggard, here.

That said, I think it IS possible to talk about free will in some way, but only in a way that includes subselves and subconscious processes.

UPDATE, Nov. 26: Massimo Pigliucci actually defends Nahmias, claiming he "provides a nuanced and intelligent brief discussion of the topic." Massimo is often thought-provoking and never dumb, but he's just off base on this one. (In the same post, he says that way too much is read into Libet. I'll split the difference and say that somewhat too much may be read into him, and that what Libet's experiments study are somewhat imprecise. But, to claim he's pretty much irrelevant to discussions of free will is a stretch, at the least.)

UPDATE, Nov. 27: Add this excellent essay to your reading. From a neuroscience perspective, it argues that brain systems that evolved to detect actual (or apparent) "intentionality" are a focal point for the rise of an illusion of "self." And, here's the journal essay that influenced that blog essay.

This ties in with Dan Dennett's "heterophenomenology." We assume "selves" in others because of this 'intentionality set" that appears to be built into our brains. But, Dennett doesn't quite note this is a two-way street. Per modern social psychologists, the "self," or what we call a "self" for ourselves, is in part a construct based on our interaction with others. That includes them seeing, and noting, seeming "intentionality" in ourselves.

So, even if there isn't a unitary self, not only do we act "as if" there is, we find it hard not to do so because of this outside conditioning as well as our own brain's mindset.

Now, a Buddhist meditation adept, or a devotee of deep self-hypnosis, might be able to transcend that to some degree. But (and this is why I only half-jokingly say "the only good Buddhist is a dead Buddhist") the person who recognizes, and more than just intellectually understands, that "self" is to some degree an illusion is generally unable to hold on to that idea. The Zen monk rejoins the rest of the monastery; the hypnosis adept walks out the door and into the larger world. And "conventional" ideas of self get reinforced again.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Do animals have souls?

The headline is facetious, of course. I'm a materialist, a philosophical as well as methodological naturalist.

But, in reference to ontological dualists, there's more good reason to be facetious.

Dogs and cats, even, and certainly other primates, might experience out of body experiences and near death experiences? Very interesting, and, neuroscience argues, likely true. Now the headline was fluff; dogs and cats, at least, surely don't have anything close to what we call "spiritual experiences."

But, a chimpanzee dancing himself or herself into a trance at the base of a waterfall? That's a different thing.

That said, of course, it doesn't have a soul, either.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Gnu vs. "thoughtful" atheism - a bit of history

First, about that title.

Rather than have Gnu Atheists label (and as a pejorative, to boot) people like me as "accommodationist," to the degree I identify myself as an atheist at various times and in various venues and discussions, I thought, while not label myself, if a label is sometimes needed?

And, calling myself a "thoughtful atheist"? If you infer that I'm implying something about Gnu Atheists, well, there's nothing I can do about your inferences.

Now, the history. I believe that the history of atheist (in the western, naturalistic sense, not Theravada Buddhist sense) divisions can be traced back about 250 years to interactions between David Hume and the Baron D'Holbach during Hume's sojourn in France. (Wikipedia links for both.)

In its Hume entry, though I believe it overstates things a bit, we see this noted:
It is likely that Hume was skeptical both about religious belief (at least as demanded by the religious organisations of his time) and of the complete atheism promoted by such contemporaries as Baron d'Holbach. Russell (2008) suggests that perhaps Hume's position is best characterised by the term "irreligion". O'Connor (2001, p19) writes that Hume "did not believe in the God of standard theism. ... but he did not rule out all concepts of deity". Also, "ambiguity suited his purposes, and this creates difficulty in definitively pinning down his final position on religion".
I would at least agree with Russell, but think that O'Connor overstates that. Beyond that, some recent scholarship argues that "A Treatise on Human Nature" was a carefully crafted, carefully couched/disguised argument for atheism.

Meanwhile, per his entry, even many of the French philosophes found d'Holbach too radical and too acerbic. Again, no further comment, but what others do with inferences, I can't control.

Beyond style, I think Hume found d'Holbach too black-and-white in his thinking in general, as well as being, per Dan Dennett, a bit of a "greedy reductionist." Were d'Holbach around today, we'd maybe accuse him of scientism. And d'Holbach probably would have called Hume, the most thoughtful of people, an "accommodationist."

Anyway, this "tension," if you will, is nothing new.

But, for those of us who are nuanced, who are thoughtful .. we have a secular "patron saint." Fittingly, of course, we recently marked the 300th anniversary of Hume's birth.

Celebrate. Be ... reasonable. But not rationalistic!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Another Gnu Atheist, another lie about "growth"

It's getting kind of tiresome, Gnu Atheists (whether explicitly self-identifed as such or not) who claim there's an "atheist growth explosion" in this U.S. When there's not.

The latest? Some B-ranker named Greg Paul at the Washington Post freelance forum, who wayyyy gets it wrong. Atheism is not growing. Period. That said, looking at the author's Wiki page, which I will not link, he seems disposed to overblown claims. The author doesn't explicitly call himself a "Gnu" there, but it wouldn't surprise me. In the column, he also repeats the Gnu canard that atheism, or "democratic atheism," as he notes (trying to cut Stalin and Mao out of the loop) are morally superior to theism. Since we don't have that long a time frame for democratic atheism, there's not much of the "scientific proof" that he claims, first. He also distorts information from Gallup polls, ignores the part in the Harris polls that undercuts him and more.

For someone who touts science in the same breath with "democratic atheism," he's got a lot of chutzpah.

Reality? As I've blogged before, the comprehensive 2008 ARIS survey does show a strong growth in the "irreligious," but they include people "spiritual but not religious," Christians tired of organized denominations, neopagans, New Agers and many others who either believe in one or more gods, or if technically atheist (some New Agers and Buddhists fit there) nonetheless have anti-naturalistic metaphysical beliefs.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

‘Critical’ Xns not any more rational than fundys?

Or at the least, they can be just as determined in their habits and depth of motivated reasoning, perhaps.
In one particular case, I know that’s true.

In an extended debate on Google Plus with a new Harvard Divinity School student, I wound up learning a number of things along that line.

I started the thread with this post:
If God wants us to be unselfish and think of others first, then why does he want us to think above him above everyone else?
I explained that this was influenced by an actual religion column by a conservative, mainline Protestant (Lutheran) but nonfundamentalist minister.

Eventually, Mr. Harvard Div responded:
When you base your joke on an if that presumes the Christian God, you leave the question of whether God exists behind. You enter a world that assumes such a God exists.
So, thing No. 1 I learned?

This person thinks a rhetorical device use of “if” thinks that I’m actually committed to the propositional statement that follows the “if.” Either he’s clueless about use of rhetoric, or he’s willing to distort my rhetorical stance that much that he’s willing to engage in intellectual dishonesty. Or a bit of both.

Anyway, he then goes on to make a claim I expected more from a conservative, non-critical-scholarship Christian.
So you seriously think that, granting a creator of everything, literally an author of everything, that one could effectively do good without loving the author?-- and further you believe that so strongly that you think it's not even a passably good argument?
I responded in two ways, saying, basically, I and many other secularists feel that way, and we have nearly 2,500 years of philosophical history behind us.
Plato raised this issue 2500 years ago in the Euthyphro are things good because god(s) say(s) so, or is/are god(s) good because they follow an order of goodness outside it/them? Plato saw way back then that one cannot logically anchor morality on the existence of adivinity. I know many Christian apologists claim he presents a false dilemma, but their counterarguments are weak. … The answer to your question, not just from me, but from many secularists of all sorts of nametags ... is YES. Yes, I believe one can do good without loving a creator, and that logically, claiming a creator is necessary is horribly illogical.
By this point, I wasn’t expecting him to accept Plato’s argument. And he didn’t, with this response:
Plato's gods in the Euthyphro are not all that similar to the Christian God which you were here critiquing, and Christian thinkers have described their God largely in terms that avoid the Euthyphro dilemma.
To which, and other things, I said, basically, “that’s your perception.” It wasn’t the first time in the thread where he made a statement of his opinion, IMO, assuming it was right. 

Beyond that, the Wiki article on the Euthyphro dilemma, linked above, directly addresses his absurd claim that Plato’s thought can’t apply to the Christian god.
The dilemma can be modified to apply to philosophical theism, where it is still the object of theological and philosophical discussion, largely within the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions. As Leibniz presents this version of the dilemma: "It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things."
The fact that hordes of Christian, Jewish and Islamic philosophers worried about it shows they damn well knew just how much it applies.

And, the disingenuousness of their response shows that, too. Still from the Wiki article:
Anselm scholar Katherin A. Rogers observes, many contemporary philosophers of religion suppose that there are true propositions which exist as platonic abstracta independently of God. Among these are propositions constituting a moral order, to which God must conform in order to be good. Classical Judaeo-Christian theism, however, rejects such a view as inconsistent with God's omnipotence, which requires that all that there is is God and what he has made. "The classical tradition," Rogers notes, "also steers clear of the other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, divine command theory." From a classical theistic perspective, therefore, the Euthyphro dilemma is false. As Rogers puts it, "Anselm, like Augustine before him and Aquinas later, rejects both horns of the Euthyphro dilemma. God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.”
The last two sentences, per the analytic philosophy that said Harvard Div student showed elsewhere he (for good reasons, I guess, from his point of view) doesn’t like, are basically meaningless. The last sentence, if anything, accepts the first “horn” of the dilemma, that things are good only because (a) god says they are. 

The second-last sentence, combined with it, if it came out of Paul Tillich’s mouth, would be calling God the “ground of moral being.” But, wordplay can’t escape logic.

He follows with this:
Now, you may find such a God logically impossible, but it is still a mis-representation to say that if this logically impossible God exists, then he couldn't do X because it is logically impossible (ha ha, let's all have a laugh because of how these people didn't think of this). They did think of this. Their answer is fully consistent with the nature of God that they point out; if God's nature is the embodiment of moral value, as in Christian thought, then it follows that to love him is to love what is good.
I realize how wedded he is to Tillich-type thought with that statement. In fact, in an earlier thread, on Facebook, he more directly referenced Tillich, in the same comment as saying how he rejected analytic philosophy.

Yep, and we know why.

Well, sir, Paul Tillich is as dead as god, and so is Tillich’s theology. Really, if that’s the best a supposedly broad-minded student can bring to Harvard (it’s his first semester, so, I won’t blame it ON Harvard yet). In fact, I’m surprised the Wiki article on the Euthyphro dilemma didn’t bring Tillich into the discussion. After all, his theology is largely based on ontology, and, as I’ve blogged before about Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of god, it fails because …

Here’s that damned analytic philosophy again …

Because it commits a category mistake. “Existence” is NOT an attribute.

And, that said, I know where Mr. Harvard Div’s claim that Platonic gods are not like the Xn god comes from. They’re not “the ground of being.” And, that’s why people like this don’t like analytic theology – because it cuts through the attempted word play to get at actual meaning and content.

Anyway, lesson learned. Any time I should again get in a discussion of morals, ethics or related issues, let alone the “problem of evil,” with a “critical scholar” Christian, I’ll ask questions first. Starting with what they think about Tillich in particular and modern “ontological theology” in general.

That said, and again, it’s meant to be snarky … what if a Hindu claimed Krishna was the “ground of being”? I suspect that at least some “enlightened, tolerant” critical-thinking Christian scholars would first laugh, then go on the critical-philosophical attack.

UPDATE: Speaking of, a Western academic Buddhist, on a FB thread, says "Karma and reincarnation aren't falsifiable claims." So, this isn't even a liberal-vs-conservative Christianity deal, with them being the two sides of the same coin, it's really a religion vs. naturalism claim.

I of course responded that David Hume first pointed out, even if not using Carl Sagan's words, that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." I also, riffing on Ben Johnson's comment about patriotism, politely said the claim "metaphysical stance X isn't falsifiable" was the last refuge of the religious, without adding the word "scoundrel."

For both conservative and liberal Christians, not only is Yahweh jealous – so are his followers. That's the second lesson learned.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Liberals "project" themselves on conservatives

A fair amount of this post involves politics, more than I normally post at this blog. But, there's psychological and philosophical angles behind that, so I'm putting it here.

Whether it's Chris Mooney thinking that conservative climate change denialists should be easy to convert to a Harvard Divinity School attendee really thinking that many conservative Christians operate on a love first, not a fear first (or anger or hate first), understanding of God, or whether it's Barack Obama in December 2010 thinking that John Boehner and other GOPers wouldn't hold the budget hostage to the national debt ceiling, I see a certain stripe of liberals do this time after time: Assume that conservatives think the same way, have their thought processes motivated the same way, and more.

Mooney, at least, even knows better. He's written before about "authoritative" reasoning styles and conservative-liberal thinking differences.

Obama has no excuse for not knowing better, if he doesn't.

And, liberal religionists? As I said on Google Plus, ever since hell came into the monotheistic theology workbook, fear, or better, a fear/anger/hatred mix, has pretty much always been the main driver of many religious conservatives. I really don't see that having changed today. Now, is it the primary driver, both from their own emotions, or what emotional drivers they see in their view of god, for all conservative religionists? No. But, in the monotheistic tradition, if you take hell literally, and don't try to spin it like C.S. Lewis as unbelivers' self-divorce from god, it has to be at least part of your emotional makeup.

Beyond that? The same people who reject evolution also reject the evolution of religious ideas. 

Let's look further at the fear/anger/hate mix.

In times of uncertainty, people look to pass down stress and stressors by "kicking" the "other," whomever the "other" may be. And, yes, conservative people do that too, whether it's the social Darwinism of the Success Gospel, the "god hates gays" of homophobia or other things.

Beyond the fear of uncertainty, there's the fear of god. To nuance this by claiming it's healthy respect or whatever, no. Luther wanted to drive Jews out of their homes, hated peasants, and his own monastery-conversion superstitious fear never left him. Calvin burned heretics at the stake just like Catholics. Beyond the fear, and allied with it, was anger. The anger of people acting out of control. The anger of people thinking independently. And, beyond that, the hate. The hate of people waiting for vengeance. The hate of people at times seeing themselves as self-anointed prophets to bring about vengeance themselves.

And, look at the Nazarene himself. Angry at an unfruitful fig tree, even though it was out of season? Claiming that Bethsaida would "get it worse" than Sodom and Gomorrah? Anger there, and in the second case, jealousy behind it.

And, it plays out besides religion. Fear of actual problems with the climate becomes fear of being "stuck." That then becomes fear of the government taking something (even if the government's benefited you before.) It becomes fear of not having control, including control of information. From there, it becomes anger at those who claim to know more. And, from there, hatred. Yes, hatred. Look at death threats against climate scientists.

Now, active haters may be a small minority today. But, in an indirect riff on Martin Niemoller, how often are they condoned by others, in fear and anger?

That said, I'm not going to claim that fear, anger or hate have no part in being among my emotional drives. Of course they do. But, to the degree I rise above that, whether through "nature" or "nurture' or some mix, I don't assume others have.

Besides, if conservatives in general value maintaining the "status quo," so-called "negative" emotions generally make that easy to do. 

Beyond that, liberal-minded people generally not only value the role of rational thought, but believe more in its potency than conservatives do. So, the very idea that conservatives will change their ideas on a rational-discussion basis is often a bit of a non sequitur. 

As for me, I'd rather be a realistic pessimist here, just as I am elsewhere in life.

I'll never assume religious conservatives in general are motivated by love of god before fear of god. I'll never assume climate denialists are going to respond rationally even to "self-love by climate protection" arguments rather that anger at "scientific elites." I'll never assume Republicans will lovingly "act for the good of the country" or whatever.

This leads me to think of Hume's is/ought, and evolutionary psychology. We aren't limited to evolutionary nature, tis true. But, it is a constraint. And, when linked with nurture, is a double constraint.

People change, tis true. But not often. And often, not deeply. And even less often are multiple deep changes. 

As part of the "dark side of the Internet," tribalism may well rise, not fall.

Friday, August 12, 2011

'No regrets'? I have plenty in my life

Time and time again, I hear people claim they have no regrets about how they’ve lived their life up to this point.

Taken literally, that means to me that they’d live their entire life the same way if they had a chance to live it over. Really?

There’s three problems here, as I see it. One is viewing “good/bad” (in a growthfulness, not a moral sense) as two polarities, not a continuum. The second is “no regrets” is imprecise, and probably doesn’t mean what it literally says in such cases. The third relates to the first second and impinges upon issues of free will.

The first issue? I believe life, and life issues, can be more, or less growthful. Even ones I regret going through because of bad decisions on my part. (Although I may guilt-trip myself, I can’t honestly be regretful about issues where my range of choice was constrained, or I was reacting to a bad decision/choice by another person; that’s the free will angle.) So, “regret” isn’t totally a bad thing. If I can look back, and see something to learn from the situation, to see how I didn’t handle it as well as I could have, or as well as I could have with more knowledge, then regret’s not bad.

At the same time, that “more knowledge” is another key. If there’s no way I could have known more at the time, whether conscious or unconscious knowledge, that is that. I’ll get to that more in a minute, too.

The imprecision of language? This is one of the few areas where I have fairly substantial agreement with Plato, with the caveat that I don’t limit myself to writing as a way of allegedly obscuring, or even bending or destroying meaning. Oral communication, contra him and the pre-Upanishad Brahmin priests of India, can be manipulated just as well, even when in a mnemonically-driven sacral structure.

I think what people really mean is, “I don’t have any regrets about past actions to which I am too attached.” That’s much healthier – if true. But … maybe it isn’t always true?

Maybe it isn’t so bad to retain a modicum of regret as a learning tool NOT as a “kick myself” tool but as a learning tool.

Finally, there's all sorts of free will aspects.

To the degree free will even exists, it may not exist on a conscious level. To the degree it exists within semiconscious subselves, it's constrained by past elements in our lives and how they've shaped the psyches of those subselves, as well as the fictitious unitary self that claims to be in the driver's seat. The idea of regret may be the right idea in one sense, but not at all in another sense. How can we regret an action that was not undertaken or done with full freedom? There may be a partialness of regret, but, can there be anything more?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

#ChrisHedges: The good, the bad, the ugly

All three attributes of much of Hedges' recent writing are encapsulated in his Truthout post about the Norway terror attacks, entitled, "Fundamentalism Kills."

The "good"? Yes, fundamentalism kills.

The "bad"? Claiming that most scientists practice "scientism."

The really, really "ugly"? A short sidebar screed against urbanization.

On the "bad," as in his anti-atheism book, Hedges simply fails to distinguish between a few scientists, or a few skeptics on the edge of science, just as he failed to distinguish between a few "Gnu Atheists" and the great many.
The caricature and fear are spread as diligently by the Christian right as they are by atheists such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Our religious and secular fundamentalists all peddle the same racist filth and intolerance that infected Breivik.
Those two don't totally represent all Gnu Atheists, let alone all atheists in general.

Beyond that? Science isn't a second fundamentalism. "Scientism" may be, but science isn't. Ditto that "Gnu Atheism" may be a fundamentalism, but atheism in general isn't.

That said, the "bad" doesn't come out of nowhere. When a third "Gnu," P.Z. Myers, claims Hitch and Harris aren't conservatives, he refuses to face that Gnu Atheism has a messaging problem, fails to admit that this affects all atheism, and propagates both of those problems.

So, while Hedges is (once again) guilty of shoddy, shoddy thinking, I can understand his passion.

Beyond that, though, the bad leads into the ugly.

Here's Hedges on urbanism:
The Industrial Age has provided feats of engineering and technology, yet it has also destroyed community, spread the plague of urbanization, uprooted us all, turned human beings into cogs and made possible the total war and wholesale industrial killing that has marked the last century.
The problem of the evil side of urbanization, whether overstated or not, is mankind, not 'urbanization."

Otherwise, the invention of agriculture "uprooted' us from nomadism. And it turned humans into cogs more than 10,000 years ago.

It's also the only way the planet supports more than a few hundred million people, not more than 6 billion.

And that's why people like Hedges are more than a touch hypocritical. Does Hedges want to take a raft, kayak or Kon-Tiki to all his war journalism reporting? And, does he want to stop writing on the Internet? Stop taking his prescription medications, etc..

And, if we need to reduce world population by 90 percent as part of getting rid of "urbanization," is he volunteering to be part of that 90 percent?

Even if we concentrate on the last 100 years, urbanization has brought economies of scale, a flowering of the arts, etc. if Hedges doesn't like 'urbanization," he can move to North Dakota of his own free will. If he doesn't like that, he can join the "90 percent" that need to leave this planet.

Monday, July 25, 2011

More proof Sam Harris is a #neocon - and irrational

I've blogged before about how famous "Gnu Atheist" Sam Harris, with the intensity of his Islamophobia, how that seeped into his book "The (IM)Moral Landscape," including authors in his bibliography and more, are clear signs he's some sort of neoconservative. (His stance on other aspects of moral issues, outside of Islamophobia, kind of gives tangential credence to that, too.) I blogged about P.Z. Myers trying to claim Harris isn't a religious conservative, which Zed continues to refuse to accept.

More circumstantial proof is now in. Harris tries to defend Norwegian bomb/shooting suspect against claims he's a Christian fundamentalist.

Here's an extract from Breivik's 1,500-page manifesto that seems to be pretty clear evidence he's a fundamentalist.
When I initiate (providing I haven’t been apprehended before then), there is a 70% chance that I will complete the first objective, 40% for the second, 20% for the third and less than 5% chance that I will be able to complete the bonus mission. It is likely that I will pray to God for strength at one point during that operation, as I think most people in that situation would….If praying will act as an additional mental boost/soothing it is the pragmatical thing to do. I guess I will find out… If there is a God I will be allowed to enter heaven as all other martyrs for the Church in the past. (p. 1344)
If a Muslim bomber/shooter said that, Harris would be mad-dog foaming at the mouth.


Here's Harris trying to explain this all away:
(T)he above passages would seem to undermine any claim that Breivik is a Christian fundamentalist in the usual sense. What cannot be doubted, however, is that Breivik’s explicit goal was to punish European liberals for their timidity in the face of Islam.
Harris then goes on to show how he and Breivik have further neocon backgrounds.
I have written a fair amount about the threat that Islam poses to open societies, but I am happy to say that Breivik appears never to have heard of me. He has, however, digested the opinions of many writers who share my general concerns—Theodore Dalrymple, Robert D. Kaplan, Lee Harris, Ibn Warraq, Bernard Lewis, Andrew Bostom, Robert Spencer, Walid Shoebat, Daniel Pipes, Bat Ye’or, Mark Steyn, Samuel Huntington, et al.
The last four are clear neocons, sometimes virulent. So is Lewis. Kaplan's on the fence. Warraq? Has other issues at times. I've not read too much of the others.

Sam Harris, you have now fallen into an even lower circle of any Dantean secular hell consignments that could exist.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Science, scientism, skepticism, atheism, ethics

I'd been meaning to write a post like this for some time. Various issues within the worlds of science, philosophy, skepticism (which has a foot in both science and philosophy) and related issues have finally nudged me forward.

The first biggie was Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape." I was pleasantly surprised when philosopher Massimo Pigliucci's review on Amazon largely agreed with mine in not only noting that Harris didn't have a good handle on morals and ethics issues in general, but also engaged in thought processes that rightfully could be called scientism.

Then, having read P.Z. Myers (he denies it, but Bob Carroll has a similar take on P.Z.) and Vic Stenger, amongst so-called Gnu Atheists, at least halfway claim to have proved the nonexistence of god, led me a bit further forward in this direction.

Add in the fact that, on a few recent posts on Skepticblog, some commenters there don't get, or else choose to ignore, the difference between empirical evidence for/against a particular idea of god vs. philosophical issues about what versions of a deity might logically be able to exist, and the issue grows.

Add in that a Michael Shermer post about SETI adds to what I see as one problem with many of its most ardent boosters: a quasi-religious faith that extraterrestrial life must exist.

Finally, some browsing on Amazon today, where a couple of reviews of a couple of books, bring back to mind claims that fundamentalist Christians make about horrific atheist murderers, i.e., Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and atheists, especially but not just Gnu Atheists, claiming that none of that terrible trio were atheists.

Well, now that I've laid all that out, here's where my thoughts go.

I'm going to tackle issues of religious belief, or lack thereof, and morality.

First, the "terrible trio."

Hitler? Yes, we know that he had a Catholic background and upbringing. What his adult religious beliefs are, we don't know. He cozied up to the Catholic church enough to get it to cozy up to him, while yet, early in his reign, ignoring it when he euthanized the mentally handicapped and others. So, let's bracket him.

Stalin? Yes, he went to an Orthdox seminary as a juvenile. So what. John Loftus went to a seminary. So did I. By this weak argument of atheists, John and I are both still Christians. Fact of the matter is, Stalin actively clamped down on Christianity in the Soviet Union, and otherwise gives clear indications of being an atheist. Beyond that, as Wikipedia notes in its article on Marxism and religion, the USSR was officially atheist.

Mao? We still don't know a lot about his personal life, but he gives no indication of being religious in any way.

As for studies which show that fundamentalist and evangelical Christians divorce as much as atheists in particular or nonreligious in general, that's also true. Two observations, though.

First, divorce is only one marker for morals, and isn't even that strong of a marker. Second, if the divorce rates are the same, that doesn't mean religious people are less moral, at least on marriage, just that they're tied.

Finally, because there are so many more religious than irreligious people in the world, for both better and worse, on both sides of the aisle, confirmation bias can easily raise its head. On the side of religious exemplars, that's because they're so many of them. On the side of irreligious exemplars, that's because deviations away from the moral mean stand out so much more.

This all said, more scientists could stand a little more grounding in philosophy. Not anything huge, but a basic college intro course, or better, an intro to logic course.

This leads to another issue, and back to what is called "skepticism" today.

I have a number of observations to make here.

First, many "skeptics" are unfamiliar with skepticism as a philosophy. I politely suggest addressing that.

Second, per my comment above on scientists, many "skeptics" don't know that much philosophy in general.

Third, many "skeptics" are somewhat to very selective in their skepticism. I'm not expecting perfection, but I politely suggest addressing that.

Fourth, true skepticism has become politicized, in part because of reason No. 3 above. I'm not looking for a "purge" of skeptics, unlike P.Z. Myers wanting to purge conservatives from atheism. A conservative skeptic who is honest about anthropogenic global warming is still a skeptic. A conservative "skeptic" who is dishonest about anthropogenic global warming isn't a real skeptic.

And this is why, like a couple of friends of mine, I weary of the world of "professional skepticism" at times. But, per that last point, if pseudoskeptics, including online trolls, aren't stood up to, they win.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Emotional dissonance" - a term that needs more use?

I have briefly mentioned the phrase, as a parallel to "cognitive dissonance," with support groups and friends.

In a comment on a SkepticBlog post about The Amazing Meeting 9 and cognitive dissonance, I mentioned the idea there.
As cognition is not done as a sterile intellectual exercise ... I think we need to stress this more.
One person responded that s/he thought that "emotions" were included in cognition, and in cognitive dissonance. I responded:
Understood on what “cognitive” entails. That said, it’s my guess that the “average Joe/Jane” thinks “intellectual” when they hear the term “cognitive,” though, or may at the least think the “intellectual” is being emphasized to the degree of less to much less attention on the emotions.

And, that, in term, gets to the “image of skepticism,” if you will. My skepticism (or better yet, per David Hume, my empirical stance) is driven by the interaction of the passions and reason.

Obviously, emotions are visible when one is being a dick, rather than when one is not … but showing positive emotional reasons for skepticism is the “hearts” of the “hearts and minds” battle.
This person then, in my opinion, undercut her previous comment. I will quote this person:
“(E)motional dissonance” implies that emotions are to blame for poor reasoning, which is usually not the case.
I humbly but firmly beg to differ.

Look at the religious right segment of the GOP, which continually votes on emotion even though the party's corporatist leaders really don't care about it that much. Ditto on tea partiers letting themselves be astroturfed and not starting a third party. Many "moderate" antivaxxers who aren't into conspiracy theories let themselves be swayed by emotions even though they know, intellectually, that expert medical opinion is usually right.

Hume reminded us, after all, that reason needs to follow the passions, not the other way around. This doesn't mean that reason accepts what the passions within us say, but it does mean it accepts as a starting point what the passions are saying to us.

If we want to take "emotional dissonance" more narrowly .... it affects our decision making all the time. We're conflicted about going to a family gathering because we like some people but hate others. We're emotionally conflicted about taking a new job. Etc.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Updating T.S. Eliot's "Hippopotamus" - "The Hippocampus"

Updating TS Eliot, on the hippocampus and fearmongering. I kept in the "god" references so I didn't have to edit more, to change more rhymes, but I was actually thinking more of secular fearmongering such as the "War on Terror."

The broad-backed hippocampus
Rests on its axis in the brain;
Although it seems so firm to us
It is hard to explain.
Flesh-and-blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Fear can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

The hippo's feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,
While the True Fear need never stir
To gather in its dividends.

The 'campus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Fear from over sea.

At mating time the hippo's voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Fear, at being one with God.

The hippocampus's day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way --
The Fear can sleep and feed at once.

I saw the 'campus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.

He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr'd virgins kist,
While the True Fear remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

First Pop Ev Psych, now Pop Ev Sociology?

Remember those stories of a year or two ago about how things like obesity could be "socially contagious"?

Well, not so fast. It appears that they had a variety of statistical errors, the "research" behind them had never been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and other things.

Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler
That said, that didn't prevent the authors from giving a snazzy TED talk (it seems like TED is devolving more and more into pop science of various sorts and not always accurate pop science), and otherwise "selling" their findings.

That includes Fowler appearing on Colbert, where he made claims about losing weight himself as to not "infect" others. But, Fowler wants it both ways; he said he shouldn't have his research judged on comments like that.

Worse, showing once again that even actual science, not alleged science, isn’t perfect, the NEJM, per the story, is standing behind the claims.

And, that's sad, since the mainstream media never gives debunking stories the same play as it does original claims. If the NEJM isn't going to be a better gatekeeper, it's not so "good." Especially since it rejected a piece of debunking research. In short, professional journals like NEJM can "pull a Mooney," not just pseudoscience ones.

And, also "worse" is that Christakis and Fowler shoot legitimate research in the foot with antics like this:
So is obesity contagious? What about happiness and divorce and poor sleep? One irony of the contagion battles is that even if their methods are suspect Christakis and Fowler are obviously correct that peer influence exists and that it may be even more important than we realize. ...

But just because contagion is important in one context doesn't mean something like obesity spreads like a virus—much less one that can infect someone as remote from you as your son's best friend's mother. (For the record, I and my best friend's mother will eat our hats if it turns out to be true, as Christakis and Fowler claim, that loneliness is infectious, too.) Yes, we influence each other all the time, in how we talk and how we dress and what kinds of screwball videos we watch on the Internet. But careful studies of our social networks reveal what may be a more powerful and pervasive effect: We tend to form ties with the people who are most like us to begin with.
In other words, correlation is not always causation. And, to the degree causation is behind correlation, one had better get the correct order of cause and effect understood. Christakis and Fowler appear to be bad social scientists right there.

Friday, July 08, 2011


St. Paul was wrong,
Especially if we remove religious and metaphysical overtones
From “faith, hope and love.”
Love cannot abide without hope,
Whether the hope that a lover, or an adult child,
Will change bad behaviors.
Or the hope that a parent will accept an adult child
With different values and beliefs.
Without such hope, love cannot abide.
And faith, not metaphysical faith in things unseen,
But, faith in the sense of trust?
Faith cannot abide, either,
Without hope that a person, or a place,
Will improve, even if we don’t yet know how.
Even faith in our own selves cannot abide,
Without hope that we have some degree of control,
If but in a small corner,
Over our own lives and selves.
The greatest, and most basic, of these
Is hope.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Democracy: An intrinsic good or "only" a utilitarian one?

A British philosopher of science, Philip Kitcher, makes the argument that in at least some science issues, and specifically that of anthropogenic global warming, it's clear that democracy's "good" in general is "only" utilitarian, and that in the specific case of AGW, it has, at least right now, no intrinsic good at all.

In other words, to put this bluntly, sometimes, as in this case, democracy is bad.

Do we need this, or Kitcher to tell us that, though? Probably not.

Stereotypes about it aside, specifics of how democracy was structured in Weimer Germany show it was utilitarianly bad, in the end. Ditto for the fledging socialist democracy of Russia between the two 1917 revolutions.

When democracy in a specific situation is bad for structural reaons, that doesn't mean other versions of democracy would be bad in that situation. The more stable-post WWII Germany democracy might well have survived Weimar. A different Russian leader than Alexander Kerensky, western democracies not threatening a loan cutoff if Kerensky took Russia out of the war, or both, would have increased the survival odds for 1917 democracy.

That said, those historical issues all center on matters readily understandable by laypeople. The average citizen, though, as the SciAm blog points out ... just doesn't get global warming. Or other science issues.

Now, as the article notes, Kitcher's proposed solution is both expensive and unwieldy. Beyond that, psychologically, as Chris Mooney and others have noted, many people reason and argue to strengthen in-tribe beliefs, and Kitcher's program simply isn't likely to overcome that.

So, in a place like the U.S., a nonparliamentary democracy where the use of executive orders has steadily expanded over the last decades, how much democracy should a president "sacrifice" if he or she is really ready to "go to the mat" on this one?

I should add a bit about my philosophical inclinations, as part of why I think Kitcher has some good thoughts.

I'm an anti-absolutist in general, and specifically, somewhat related to this, an anti-idealist. So, I generally shy away from claims of things having intrinsic value, unless it's something like clear, evolutionarily-grounded questions of ethics.

At the same time, though, I'm not a utilitarian, certainly not ion the narrow philosophical sense, because utilitarianism has a boatload of philosophical problems, some of them ethical (as Sam Harris, probably unwittingly, demonstrated in "The Immoral Landscape.") What means are "allowable" to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number? If we decide, in dire emergencies, to "weight" needs of children vs. senior citizens, by how much do we do that? And who decide? How much of a supermajority, speaking of democracy, should be required for many "hedonistic" calculus" issues? Bentham, Mill and their followers, including Mr. Harris, basically ignore or dodge these and related questions.

So, really, my answer is that democracy doesn't have an intrinsic value, and that, in principle, we can never agree on how much utilitarian value most things in life do or do not have. That's kind of where Walter Kaufmann comes from on "Without Guilt or Justice" which pretty much demolishes Rawls, and by extension and indirectly, utilitarianism in general.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Why you shouldn't believe Shermer's 'Believing Brain'

If you want to know why you shouldn't believe Michael Shermer's "The Believing Brain," as well as why, for parts that are any good, you should go to more original resources, read my latest Amazon reviews.

A sample:
Here's derivative and blind spots intersecting -- Shermer briefly, but briefly talks about Kahneman and Tversky's study in behavioral economics (without also citing Ariely, among others). One will learn much more about how irrational human behavior is in matters of economics, and related psychology, by going to the source. Shermer could have had a better book with a whole chapter just on this field.

So, why didn't he? I suspect because he knows how totally behavioral economics chops into little bitty pieces the claims of his beloved Ayn Rand and the Austrian School of Economics.
If you know Michael Shermer, and know he's not all he cracks himself up to be, you're not surprised by that. If you think you know Shermer, but don't necessarily worship the ground he walks on while thinking he is nonetheless a great skeptic, there's plenty more after those first two paragraphs of my review, so click the link and get enlightened.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Computer software confirms 'documentary hypothesis

Ever since the idea was first proposed more than a century ago by Julius Wellhausen, nonfundamentalist biblical scholars (of course, fundamentalist, by self-definition, aren't full-fledged biblical scholars) have postulated, developed and refined a "documentary hypothesis" for the writing, then later editing together of various sections of the Torah/Penteteuch, or the first five books of the Tanakh/Christian bible, which the nonscholars allege was written by Moses.

The hypothesis says that a "Yahwist," called the J author because Wellhausen was German, and the J has the y-sound there, ja, wrote large chunks, especially of Genesis, that focus on the use of the divine name. Theoretically, this author lived about 900 BCE in the southern "kingdom" of Judah after a united Israel (if it existed, as Old Testament minimalists question) split.

Another author, writing slightly later, is the "Elohist" or E author. He allegedly wrote slightly later, from the post-split northern kingdom of Israel, which included Ephraim (an "E" help mnemonic, as Judah is for the "J").

Then, a third author, a "Deuteronomist," is posited as the primary author of the book of Deuteronomy, just in time for Josiah, king of Judah, to "discover" about 621 BCE.

Fourth, a "Priestly' author wrote down all the ritual observances, the first version of the Genesis creation story, the dietary laws and similar stuff, after leaders of Judah were carted off to exile in Babylon.

Some say this person may have lived later and been the scribe Ezra, of the book of that name. Some postulate an original priestly author, but Ezra as a major redactor.

Well, at least between the priestly and nonpriestly sections, new computer research confirms the division. That's despite this background:
Three of the four scholars are religious Jews who subscribe in some form to the belief that the Torah was dictated to Moses in its entirety by a single author: God.
Just a reminder that religious fundamentalism isn't limited to Christianity.

Anyway, the computer software found multiple authors elsewhere, not just in the Torah. The software sees multiple authors in Isaiah, as do critical scholars.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Chomsky should think again - within himself

Sounds like this is a definite book to read: The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization.

Michael Corbalis, as noted in this review, thinks its recursive thinking, done without any special fluency in language, let alone a language "module," that makes us human.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How and why I became an atheist, Part 6

In part 1 of this series, I look at my conservative Lutheran childhood, above all my conservative Lutheran minister father's influences.

Part 2 gets into my high school and college years.

And Part 3 gets to my trying to follow in dad's footsteps at a Lutheran seminary, or divinity school.

In Part 4, I look at my "conversion" or transition period of my last year of school there and the first year after

In Part 5, I look at further personal, philosophical, unreligious and antimetaphysical development in my life during three years of living with my dad.

It's now 1997 and I'm on my own, editing a weekly paper. Working 60-70 hours a week, moving it from the red and into the black. Getting burned out. Drinking on the job.

At the same time, I'm now exploring more in things like cognitive science/philosophy, recognizing the origins in human brain dysfunctions of visions and hallucinations, etc. In short, I'm becoming more and more of not just an atheist, but an antimetaphysician in general.

I was eventually fired, for whatever reason. I listened to someone, and some inner part of myself, and quit drinking. And looked for support.

Well, the only game I knew of at the time for that was the religious-based sobriety support program of Alcoholics Anonymous. (And, that's what it is; don't believe the canard that "it's a spiritual program.")

Well, I was in such a post-alcohol mental fog, I didn't totally recognize that at the time. And, when I did, I was in a group, surprising for a small town in Texas, with many New Agey types and little in the way of people even approaching orthodox Christians. Well, I'd had enough happen in the last few months that I actually tried some Matthew Fox reading, even A Course in Miracles.

And, some degree of New Agey "power"-ness, but not a personal deity, "stuck" for a year or so.

That said, as noted on the previous part of this installment atheists (usually the P.Z. Myers type of "Gnu Atheists" who talk about religion as a psychological crutch don't get the time of day from me. I understand the desire for its comforts, still today. I don't find that necessary for myself today, but I'm not going to mock the people who have, not for 2,000, or even 5,000, but going by things like French cave paintings and some burials, but who have for 20,000 years sought out some sort of metaphysical support to help face the vicissitudes of life.

Anyway, I eventually moved on in many ways. I found a "secular sobriety" support group; I found a great group therapy counselor, and group, for some "childhood issues," after I moved to Dallas.

And, I moved beyond "just atheism." I could call it "positive atheism," or I could use the good old phrase "secular humanism."

I continued reading in philosophy of mind, cognitive science/philosophy and related subjects.

I saw more and more of how many of the allegedly metaphysical "artifacts" of religious belief, such as various visual and auditory "visions," deja-vu type events and more, were all parts of the wonder — and the humility — of the evolutionary cobbling together of the human brain and the eventual rise of what we could call an epiphenomenon, almost — human consciousness.

I saw that that, as well as Yosemite National Park and its falls, Grand Canyon and its vistas, Beethoven and the C sharp minor quartet and more, could all be approached with wonder, even with gratitude without having to be grateful to anybody, divinities included.

As I said in an op-ed column, riffing on Shylock in Merchant of Venice: "I am an atheist. Prick us; do we not bleed?"

But, as I said, at this point in my life, whether the term I use is "atheist," "secular humanist," "philosophical naturalist," "skeptic" or something else, I feel reasonably comfortable about where I am.

How and why I became an atheist, Part 5

In part 1 of this series, I look at my conservative Lutheran childhood, above all my conservative Lutheran minister father's influences.

Part 2 gets into my high school and college years.

And Part 3 gets to my trying to follow in dad's footsteps at a Lutheran seminary, or divinity school.

In Part 4, I look at my "conversion" or transition period of my last year of school there, my first year of mixed part-time work after graduation, my moving to somewhere between Uniterianism and agnosticism, and an invitation from my dad to move back in with him.

So, it's up to Flint, Michigan.

Dad suggested that I might be able to get an adjunct teaching position at Baker College, which had an entire division called "Corporate Services," largely devoted to helping UAW workers using education benefits to get their degrees before the next automaker layoff.

He also said that that wouldn't pay a lot of money and might not offer a lot of hours. He said one of his members was the manager of a 7-Eleven and I could probably pick up a few hours there.

Well, between feeling depressed at "failing dad," feeling depressed at "having" to move back home, feeling depressed at having "fallen" to the level of 7-Eleven work, etc., I was depressed indeed. Add in the fact of feeling hypocritical by going to dad's church every Sunday and going through the motions, and that's serious depression.

So, I tried to kill myself. And nearly succeeded. I took half a bottle of over-the-counter sleeping pills while getting drunk, maybe more. And, was going to put a bag over my head to try to suffocate myself while sleeping, in the process.

Well, I didn't get the bag on tight enough. And the self-preservation powers of human physiology kicked in a few hours later, and I violently threw up the undigested portion of the sleeping pills.

As it was, I had double vision or worse 24 hours later, with very rubbery legs.

But, I'm here today.


I taught for a year, before the college said that, due to North Central Association accreditation changes, I could only teach religion classes, of which they had none open at the time. They also said that someone had filed a sexual harassment claim (unfounded) against me. And, three months after that, a 20-year-old, or so, held me up at the 7-Eleven with a 9mm automatic.

Dad was ready to get out of Michigan, so I moved with him to small-town Texas, fortunately not too far from Dallas. Meanwhile, I was becoming an ever-more-serious drinker, out of life-frustration, boredom, and PTSD (and trigger of past PTSD symptoms) over having a 9mm waved a foot in front of my nose.

All of the emotional reasons for questioning not just the existence of god, but the support value (other than purely human group support) of any metaphysically-based organization, were increasing ever more.

On the intellectual side, I had done further critical study of biblical texts plus more and more reading in comparative religion.

And, on the personal development side, probably more unconsciously than consciously, some growth was happening there.

I don't want to stereotype agnosticism, but, for many, I think it's more a halfway house than a permanent stop; a seminary acquaintance actually pushed me back then to "declare myself" as an atheist and stop hiding out in agnosticism world. For those for whom "positive agnosticism" is a valid stance, though, my hat is indeed off to you. That said, I was also reading my first books on philosophical atheism before leaving Michigan. I knew I was at least at the farther edge of agnosticism.

And, as this part and part 4 of my journey have shown, atheists (usually the P.Z. Myers type of "Gnu Atheists" who talk about religion as a psychological crutch don't get the time of day from me. I understand the desire for its comforts, still today.

Two years of living with my dad in Texas got me a start in newspaper journalism, with a boss who was (himself) an alcoholic drinker, I believe. But, I got out of there, got a job as editor of a weekly newspaper and ...

I'll tackle more in Part 6.

How and why I became an atheist, part 4

In part 1 of this series, I look at my conservative Lutheran childhood, above all my conservative Lutheran minister father's influences.

Part 2 gets into my high school and college years.

And Part 3 gets to my trying to follow in dad's footsteps at a Lutheran seminary, or divinity school, up to the point of realizing that psychologically, I didn't want to be a minister and that, at the same time, intellectually and emotionally, I had problems with what I had been raised to believe.

So, here I am after two years of classes and a year of internship similar to a medical residency (we ought to make would-be lawyers do one of those, too), back for a final, wrap-up year of classes and realizing that this is NOT where I wanted to be going. I had enough money from scholarships and part-time work at a Lutheran publishing house that I didn't have to borrow much money to finish getting the degree while trying to figure out what I did want to do. (I've not totally figured that, 19 years later.)

On the academic side, I started doing "intellectual judo" on what I had been taught to believe. We'd been taught the bare bones of historical-critical theology with the idea that, as one professor put it, when Time or U.S. News comes out with its usual Christmas or Easter story, we could explain to church parisioners in a semi-fundamentalist denomination what was wrong with the story.

Well, being near the top of my class academically, and interested in the study of the texts and their exegesis, I took to this like a duck to water. Soon enough, before the year was out, I realized the more liberal wing of Lutheranism, just like liberal mainline Protestantism in general, wasn't a viable stopping point or landing point for my spiritual development. I was going to be some type of Unitarian, or beyond.

Related to that, I was reading more about psychology of religion and related issues. With my dad a minister, my oldest brother in the same graduating class as me, my sister having married a minister from the class ahead of me and getting her own master of arts in religion degree, my dad's sister being a Lutheran parochial school teacher, there were these larger issues.

I was losing, or cutting myself away from, some existential moorings. So I had emotional and psychological issues to face.

At the same time, I was bringing emotions, and philosophy, to bear on other religious issues, religious problems not just Christian in nature.

Big-ticket problems like the "problem of evil."

And, though I knew the basics about Buddhism, already then I was realizing that it wasn't necessarily just Western religions that have problems with this issue.

(The problem of evil is this, for the three Western monotheistic religions: How can an all-powerful god also claim to be all-loving while there's still evil in the world? For theologians who blame human sin, the quickest "counter" is with "natural evil" like hurricanes, etc.

Eastern religions? With more and more years of thought, karma, as an all-powerful law of reincarnation, becomes as evil, in a sense, as an all-powerful god for this failure. And, in some sense, the Buddhism that holds to karma is to me more perverse than the Christianity/Islam/Judaism that at least attributes this to a personal deity. But, I digress.)

On the academic side, tender young mid-20s Lutheran minds of mush were apparently too sensitive to stand up to such ideas. The dean of students eventually told me, after he'd been approached by several other students, that the only way he'd let me stay in school and graduate was if I observed a gag order. No, seriously.

So, I felt more isolated. And, as a divinity school has just one objective for its graduates (and my Lutheran undergraduate college had declined due to lack of enrollment), I had other angst on my hands, increasing - employment issues and lack of support.

Well, I graduated, continued to work part time at the Lutheran publishing house for a year after that while doing other PT work, and working on figuring out whether I was a Unitarian, an agnostic or an atheist.

A year after graduation, I realized I was at least quasi-agnostic. I knew then that Unitarianism the denomination was broad enough to accept agnostics, but ... was halfway ready to abandon religion as an organization.

Anyway, this wasn't an overnight process. My apartment complex where I lived the year after graduation was next to a small suburban St. Louis city park. I would pace out there late at night, praying/talking, or "praying"/talking to Jesus, Buddha, Yahweh, Allah, the Tao and more, venting my psyche, running through emotions and more.

This is part of why atheists (usually the P.Z. Myers type of "Gnu Atheists" who talk about religion as a psychological crutch don't get the time of day from me. I understand the desire for its comforts, still today. Ditto for those who treat "conversion" to atheism as a relatively pristine, highly intellectual process.

Then, my dad offered to let me move back home ... with the hope of me teaching on an adjunct basis at a college there. Well, it was better than what I was doing ....

And, that will continue in Part 5.